Chapter One is extremely important. Do I really need to tell you this? In both commercial and literary novels, this is where you have to hook readers and reel them into your story. It should include a motivating incident (a.k.a. the catalytic event); the problem or at least a hint of the problem that the main character has to deal with; the main character’s response; and the conflict (internal or external) that the problem creates for the main character.
When you consider your main character’s response, you should ask yourself, “What is this person’s goal(s)? What does he or she want? Everybody wants something. I want to be paid for writing this blog, but I’m not holding my breath. The goal can be explicit or implicit, the latter being an intimation, a glimmer, or a hint that readers with an I.Q. higher than room temperature will sense. Why is at least an inkling of the protagonist’s goal so important? Because without a goal the protagonist will take no action and experience no conflict as he/she strives to reach the goal. And without conflict your story will be snore fest.
In short: Goal ➔ Conflict ➔ Struggle ➔ Drama ➔ Emotions ➔ Reader connection
Before you introduce the components of scene-setting, you should have an attention-getting first line in order to pull readers into your story. This is one of my favorites from John D. MacDonald’s Darker than Amber:
“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”
How could you not be sucked into a story that begins with that line?
From a much newer novel, Head Games by Craig McDonald, the first line is:
“We were sitting in a back room of a cantina on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, three drinks in, when Bill Wade reached into the dusty duffle bag he had tucked under the table and plunked down the Mexican general’s head.”
The severed head of a dead Mexican general? That gets your attention. Notice how much scene-setting info the author includes in this first line. He tells us that there are at least two characters in this scene, probably male, where the scene takes place, and what happens. The sentence does double duty—grabbing the reader’s attention and dropping him into the fictional scene.
You can find many notable first lines by googling that subject. Here’s one good site: http://americanbookreview.org/100bestlines.asp
I have read far too many uninspiring openings written by inexperienced novelists. Often they begin with backstory. They set up the story by downloading a ton of info to readers instead of getting right into the action of the story. In other cases the writer makes a minimal effort to get the story moving by beginning with a dull bit of commonplace action, soon followed by backstory, something like this:
“When Julia woke up, her bedroom was still dark. She shuffled to the bathroom and looked at her tired face in the mirror.”
Then the writer has to tell us why she’s tired, what color her hair and eyes are, how old she is, where she was born, where she went to college, where she lives now, where she works, what guy she has just broken up with, why she’s anorexic, why her mother hates her (or vice versa), her favorite color, the name of her best friend, and how she and her BFF bonded at age six after that day in the bathroom. Etcetera. I’m exaggerating so you get the idea.
This doth not a compelling opening make. Beginning a story with the main character waking up in the morning—used more than you might think—is one of the worst ways to start a novel. It’s beyond cliché.
Writing a reader-grabbing first line, first graf, and first chapter takes a lot of thought and experimentation. I urge you to read the beginning of a truckload of novels, analyze them, and determine what works and what doesn’t. Before long you will get the hang of it.
Tip: If reading the first page induces a coma, that’s not the way you should write.
Thayer Literary Services
Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.
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